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Nature’s Fury: The Science of Natural Disasters

Controlling the Big Muddy

Life on the Missouri River

The Missouri River is the longest waterway in the United States. Known colloquially as “The Big Muddy” because of its brown color, the river travels over 2,300 miles from Three Forks, Montana, to where it empties into the Mississippi River north of St. Louis, Missouri.

Map of the Missouri River basin and the Western U.S.

Map of the Missouri River basin and the Western U.S. used by Lewis and Clark during their expedition to the Pacific Ocean at the beginning of the 19th century. Image source: Gass, Patrick., and William Clark. Tagebuch einer Entdeckungs-Reise durch Nord-America von der Mundung des Missouri an bis zum Einflusz der Columbia… Weimar: Verlage des Landes-Industrie, 1814. View Source

Westward Expansion

Extensive European-American expansion into the Missouri River Basin began in the mid-19th century with the completion of transcontinental railroads. But living and working along the Missouri River proved difficult. Cold, harsh winters followed by spring rains and hot, dry summers often meant fluctuating periods of severe flooding and drought.

Image of the Hannibal Bridge

The Hannibal Bridge, designed by Octave Chanute, opened in 1869 in Kansas City, becoming the first bridge across the Missouri River. The bridge turned Kansas City in a transportation hub, connecting the city to the larger network of rail lines. A new bridge replaced the Chanute-designed structure in 1916 and remains in use today. Image source: Chanute, Octave, and George Shattuck Morison. The Kansas City Bridge, with an Account of the Regimen of the Missouri River, and a Description of Methods Used for Founding in That River. New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1870. View Source

Controlling the River

A particularly devastating flood during World War II prompted Congress to initiate a strategy to control the river. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created what became known as the Pick-Sloan Plan to build a series of dams, reservoirs, and levees along the Missouri River. The massive construction project succeeded in controlling floods, providing irrigation, and generating hydroelectric power, but it also came with social and environmental costs.

Illustration of new dams and the resulting lakes along the upper Missouri River that destroyed ancestral Native American land. Image source: The Federal Engineer, Damsites to Missile Sites: History of the Omaha District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Omaha: The District, 1985. View Source